Sticky Rice and Stinky Fish, Expedition Laos Team Departs the Field

Our team of botanists and ecologists has converged at the foot of the Annamite Mountains on a National Geographic Explorer grant funded expedition. Dr. Phillip Thomas is a global conifer expert from the Royal Botanical Garden of Edinburgh, Robert Timmons a wildlife expert working in the region for decades, University of San Francisco graduate student Robin Hunter and Professor Gretchen Coffman and I make up the visiting team. We are now building our ranks with local biologists, forestry managers and students before entering the remote rainforests of Laos, by boat, dirt road and trekking into the hills.

Studying Topographic Maps of the Nam Theun National Protected Area with our Lao Partners
Studying Topographic Maps of the Nam Theun National Protected Area with our Lao Partners. Photo David McGuire

Our mission is to cross the reservoir and then ascend the watershed 600 meters to locate habitat hosting the target of our expedition, an increasingly rare and majestic tree known as the giant Chinese swamp cypress tree, Glyptostrobus pensilis.  This tree is akin to the giant coastal redwoods of California, only even more rare due to harvesting and habitat loss such as the flooding caused by the building of dams such as the Nam Theun 2. Based on experience, interviews and predicted in part by a habitat model we have refined our search for this important tree so that it may be conserved.

Laos Map with Nam Theun II Dam, our point of disembarkation.
Laos Map with Nam Theun II Dam, our point of disembarkation. Photo Credit International Rivers

Along the way our team is swelling.  Dr. Vichith Lamxay, Professor of Botany at the National University of Laos and two undergraduates are our local academic partners. Bee, a botanist from the Pha Tad Ke Botanical Garden, Veo, an irrepressible wildlife manager from the Department of Forest Resource Management (DFRM) and Toth from the Reforestation Division make up part of the local team. At each office visit our team grows by one or two, many in uniform and some equipped with Vietnam War era Kalashnokoff automatic rifles to reputedly protect us from poachers seeking wildlife and trees such as rosewood and the cypress we seek.

Provisions in market, we skipped the frogs
Provisions in market, we skipped the frogs. Photo David McGuire

Following meetings with the Regional National Resources Management another representative has joined, and another will join from the District office. Add a few more locals to drive boats, carry gear and make camp, our group has swelled into a small army. With the help of our friends, we will locate, measure, sample and study the ecosystem associated with the giant cypress. First we have to leave town so we can search for the trees.

Our escorts protecting us from unknown threats.
Our escorts protecting us from unknown threats. Photo David McGuire

We travel by road to Nakai, a town growing from the ranks of workers associated with the Dam project and headquarters to the Watershed Management Protection Agency  (WMPA) whose charge is to manage and protect the habitat and wildlife of the National Protected Areas above the NT2 dam, and the habitat where the remnant population of cypress grows.  In the open market we purchase the mandatory sticky rice, noodles, vegetables and tea to feed our small army. Our van and truck are loaded to the gills with field equipment, camp gear, food and fuel for the boats to take us across the lake. Heading up hill, the back door of our van opens, spilling most of the contents onto the road, and breaking containers of a favorite Lao fermented fish called Padeang. Our Lao scientific leader Dr.  Vichiss and his crew laugh good naturedly but all the gear in the van now smells like stinky fish.

Sticky Rice our breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Sticky Rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Photo David McGuire

Leaving town they decide we need replacement fish, so we stop at the local market for local fare including fruit, a few more kilos of sticky rice, an unidentifiable meat on a stick, and more Padeang.

The team is in good spirits and jokes resound as we unload and begin our first hike.

Heading to the hills in search of Glyptostrobus.
Heading to the hills in search of Glyptostrobus. Photo David McGuire

As our numbers grow, Rob and I are nervous about observing the shy birds, antelope and monkeys in the mountains. It’s a good thing the trees don’t move or our team now ranked at 12 might scare them away.

Maybe the monkeys will like the smell of stinky fish.


Changing Planet


Meet the Author
A marine biologist and adventurer, David McGuire writes, photographs and explores the natural world, documenting wildlife and works to protect threatened sharks and critical marine ecosystems though the non profit Shark Stewards.